England’s number 1. The Good. The Bad. The Great!

 Zak Hardaker, the latest inductee into the Man of Steel hall of fame, beat off the ferocious competition of fellow team mate Adam Cuthbertson and Saints forward Alex Walmsley. Hardaker was a popular choice amongst pundits and fans alike, his contributions in defence as well as attack have seen him become an integral part of the Rhinos machine. 

Hardaker started his career in the lower leagues with Featherstone Rovers, plying his trade and slowly getting noticed by some of the Super League big boys. In fact Hardaker had more than one offer on the table before he eventually signed with Leeds. Hardaker joined Leeds in 2010 for a fee in the region of £60,000, the start of his Leeds career was sporadic and he had to bide his time before gaining a run in the team. 

The Good… In the 2011 season due to injuries Zak made sporadic appearances culminating in him scoring the final try in the Grand Final victory against St Helens, whom he also made his debut against. However it was the 2012 season when Hardaker’s career began to take off and his skills and evasive nature made people sit up and take notice. An injury to Brent Webb in the latter half of the season meant that Hardaker was moved to full back, it was in this position that he flourished. The Rhinos defended their Super League title and Hardaker was rewarded personally by being chosen as the Young Player of the Season, it was also at this time Hardaker made his full England debut. The start of something special? 

The start of Hardaker’s career had thrust him into the spot light for all the right reasons, his attack and defence meant that he was pushing Tomkins for the England full back role. He was in fact called up to the England 2013 World Cup squad, an honour for any player. Could Hardaker break into the starting line up and bring the World Cup home?

The bad… Unfortunately no, this period was the start of a rocky time off the field for Zak as he was stood down from the England squad with a number of other players due to a breach of team discipline. Hardaker was fined by the Rhinos and warned about his future conduct. All the talent in the world couldn’t hide the fact Zak had a controversial nature off the field, a side which could cost him and his team glory. 

Unfortunately for Hardaker and the Rhinos the incident with the national team wasn’t the end of Hardaker’s bad boy behaviour. In 2014 Zak was disciplined for using homophobic language towards a fellow player, this led to Hardaker being banned for 5 games and receiving a £300 fine. People outside of Leeds were beginning to question how long Leeds could allow such a risky character to be on their books, however the club and the fans saw the potential in Zak and stood by him throughout. Frustrating but still brilliant. 

2015 saw Zak start the season like a house on fire, he was scoring tries for fun and became one of Leeds’ best defenders. It can be said that Hardaker is one of the best if not the best 1-1 tacklers in the Rhinos team and in fact the whole of Super League! He was scoring tries at one end and saving them at the other, a sure thing for Man Of Steel and the England full back role? Who or what could possibly stop him? The answer to that… Himself. Zak and fellow teammate Elliot Minchella were involved in an alleged assault incident in March 2015. Hardaker was forced to miss a game whilst an inquiry took place, a game the Rhinos went on to lose. Hardaker was forced to issue a letter of apology to the victim and again was the subject of an internal investigation. The Rhinos instructed Hardaker to take up anger management classes in order to avoid any future incidents. 

The Great… Hardaker picked up where he left off when coming back from the alleged assault. The Rhinos finished the regular Super League season on top of the pile. And also reached a Challenge Cup semi final against St Helens, a team Hardaker had history with. Invariably during the 2015 season a big game in which Hardaker was central and played well meant a Rhinos win, the game got off to a perfect start with Hardaker showing his class and scoring a try from Adam Cuthbertson’s great play. It wasn’t only on the try scoring sheet that Zak had a big impact, his defence and return play were huge. Luke Walsh was left with the unenviable task of trying to kick to the back three of Briscoe, Hall and Hardaker, than latter an unnervingly good catcher of a high ball. Through grit and brilliant all round play the Rhinos secured their spot in the Challenge Cup final for the second year running, beating the Saints 24-14. 

The even greater. Hardaker showed his class in the Super 8’s in a number of crucial games. The first of which was against the Rhinos bogey team, Warrington Wolves. Leeds had been beaten by the Wolves home and away in 2015 and knew they would face a tough game again in the 8’s. Hardaker however wasn’t having any of it and pulled of an incredible man of the match display, he scored two magnificent tries. The first of his tries scored on the back of a majestic offload by Jamie Peacock, Hardaker rounding Stefan Ratchford to score under the posts. This wasn’t the last Ratchford would see of Hardaker… Leeds were building up a dominant lead when Hardaker produced a moment of sensational quality, to score his second try. Going half the length of the field rounding a number of Wire players before leaving Ratchford on the seat of his pants and barging over the line. A try that is easily the individual effort of the season and possibly overall try of the season! This wasn’t the only Super 8 game Hardaker would have a massive impact on with him almost single handedly at points stopping Wigan scoring and in the end knocking over a drop goal to give his team breathing space. 

After Leeds hit a rocky period after winning the Challnege Cup for the second season in a row it looked like they would hit the playoffs from 3rd, however a last gasp try from Hall ensured they won the League Leaders shield. This again set up a titanic semi final with Saints… With Zak on the score sheet once again the Rhinos won a collossal battle to return to the Grand Final.

A season in which the Rhinos have dominated the silverware proved that way again as the cleaned up at the Man Of Steel awards, culminating with Hardaker winning the main prize. As the chants from the South stand go “England’s number 1.” Zak was having a wow of a year, in the opinions of anyone who seriously watches RL Zak has to be the starting fullback for the test series, his defence is superior to anybody England has to offer at this moment in time and his brilliant in attack can win any game. 

The final question of the season for Zak is can he pull off the treble with Leeds? That is yet to be seen but one thing is for certain, just like Leeds he’s had his “Ups and Downs” but this lad is the real deal and in my opinion a future Rhinos captain! Passion, skill, a will to win and he desire to improve on and off the field… What more could you ask for?  

 

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